Hamas Leader Hamdan: What we are and what we want
Manuela Paraipan, World Security Network Editor Broader Middle East, met in Damascus with Hamas leader Ousama Hamdan for an in-depth discussion of the party's affairs, policies and interests and what it wants from Israel and the World.
Manuela Paraipan:What can you tell me about Gilad Shilat's case? How are the negotiations going?
Ousama Hamdan: There was what everyone calls the pre-final offer, and the Israelis accepted a suggestion from the Germans, and we also thought it is a good one, just that it needed a bit of work to make it into the final offer. When the Germans went back to the Israelis, they said they are not interested in the offer anymore and introduced new ideas that eventually led to the collapse of the whole process. The Germans were upset, but they could not change the Israelis' minds. Now, I have to quote from Gilad's father when he said that Netanyahu is a liar. He undermined the process and was not willing to conduct negotiations in a proper, positive way.
There was a real problem inside the coalition between the seven member committee, the prime minister, foreign minister, defence, military and intelligence leaders. The military and the intelligence had different positions, and instead of taking a decision Netanyahu took a step back and that showed that we are not dealing with a leader.
The second point, and we learned it later on, [was that] Netanyahu was advised by the Americans-maybe some regional parties too-that this exchange will be counter-productive to the peace process, will weaken Abu Mazen and will strengthen Hamas, so better not to do it. I don't know if he accepted the ill advice, but actions speak for themselves.
The German negotiator went a month ago to Gaza and concentrated on specific issues. He asked if we were ready to go through negotiations and we repeated what we said from the beginning, that yes, we are. But we don't want to start from scratch but from where discussions were left. He then went to the Israelis and did not come back. I assume there was not a positive answer from the Israelis.
Manuela Paraipan: How are Hamas's ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?
Ousama Hamdan: There is much more potential regarding both. The Egyptians know that the resistance in Palestine is securing their own interests too and is part of their power. I cannot dictate what they have to do, but some important steps should be taken. No one could have blamed them if they accepted the results of elections; if they opened [the] Rafah checkpoint, who'd have blamed them-the Israelis?
I hope they will open Rafah, but they did not thus far.
Manuela Paraipan: Maybe Hamas is perceived as a threat to the Egyptian regime.
Ousama Hamdan:How is Hamas a threat to the security of Egypt? Maybe the 100,000 tanks in Gaza will occupy Egypt? Or maybe our fleet will invade Egypt from all shores of the Mediterranean? Is Hamas or Gaza as a superpower of 360 square kilometers a threat to [the] one and a half million square kilometers of Egypt? And [how are] 1.5 million Palestinians a danger to the 75 million Egyptians?
The Palestinians went through Rafah at the end of 2007, and, according to Egyptian numbers, 700,000 crossed the border. No one stayed in Egypt. They bought what they needed and headed back home.
Manuela Paraipan: And the Saudis?
Ousama Hamdan: Saudis have a special way of networking politically. The relation is not quite up to the level which we'd like to see, but we work to improve it. The status quo has two main aspects: their own style and the pressure of the Americans on all countries when it comes to Hamas. The Saudis have several challenges surrounding them; they support the Palestinians, but they also have to look at the regional and international picture, and that's a complicated balance to keep.
Manuela Paraipan: Is Turkey as involved as the Arab states?
Ousama Hamdan: No, not yet. It is up to them to play a role or not, but it seems they are interested. We encourage them to do so. We cannot, and are not willing to, force anyone to do anything they are not willing or ready to do. It would be a failure for all concerned parties.
Economic situation in West Bank and Gaza
Manuela Paraipan: How is the economic and financial situation in Gaza and West Bank?
Ousama Hamdan: Due to the siege and the blockade, 90 percent of Gaza's economy was shut down.
What about the 70 percent of the factories closed in West Bank? There is no siege there according to Salam Fayyad. There is a simple answer. There is no viable economic plan of Salam Fayyad. There is no development. There is plenty of money without production. What will you do when the money stops comin
g and you don't have the ability to produce and sustain yourself? In the long run it's a disaster.
Manuela Paraipan: If you were to be allowed to properly govern in Gaza, do you have a sound developmental plan?
Ousama Hamdan: You have to read our program which was built on creating an independent economic and financial structure unlike Fayyad's plan which heavily relies on the Israelis.
The Palestinians used to export directly to Europe and Jordan, and we had our own quality standards. Fayyad signed an agreement with the Israelis that forced the Palestinians to adopt the Israeli standards. As a result, they could not export anymore.
In a documentary on BBC, they said that even the keffieh (traditional Palestinian head cover) is imported from China. The new generation of business men created by Fayyad imports everything from China.
Manuela Paraipan: If the PA and the Israelis reach an agreement in terms of security, the end result may be a quasi-independent state. How do you see it?
Ousama Hamdan: First of all, not as quasi-independent. We want an independent state full stop. Second, if it's independent and sovereign, we choose with whom to have partnerships and treaties.
Manuela Paraipan: But you will have to coordinate with the Israelis. Would they accept Hamas?
Ousama Hamdan: Why not coordinate with the Jordanians or with the Egyptians, or both?
Manuela Paraipan: Could a swap of lands and a confederation in 20 or 25 years from now be part of a future agreement?
Ousama Hamdan: Why are the Palestinians supposed to either have a biased agreement in Israel's favor or a confederation with Jordan? Why not a Palestinian sovereign state? Israel wants to find a new type of occupation which may not cost the occupier too much and has someone to do the dirty work for them. We'd look independent when in fact there would be anything but independence.
The Israeli plan is to keep us surrounded by walls, quite literally; to give money to spend; and to secure themselves with a Palestinian force that would control the actions of the Palestinians. That's the independent state they'd like us to have. This is not what we have envisioned. Truth is that without real independence they keep complicating the situation.
Manuela Paraipan: Would Abu Mazen sign such an agreement?
Ousama Hamdan: Abu Mazen transferred his grandson to a Jordanian school because kids teased him by saying that his grandfather is a collaborator, and that happened before an agreement. Do you think that if he signs the situation improves?
Arafat said that he gave his clothes one by one till he was left with a cherry leaf. And then, he said, they [the Israelis] wanted to take that away too.
Why have a swap of lands? There is an occupied land so what is the point of accepting everything that Israel is perpetrating?
It's not like we'll lose the international support. We don't have it to start with. If they say they support us, define support. If it goes along the lines of having something instead of having nothing, what's the meaning of something? What have we gained in 17 years? Ask any Palestinian.
Manuela Paraipan: What if Damascus signs a peace agreement with Israel? What impact would it have on Hamas?
Ousama Hamdan: This is a good point. Let me ask you a question, why is there a problem in the region? Because Israel is occupying Palestinian lands. Well, Israel can be satisfied with its relations with Europe, Africa, East and West, so why are they insisting to have the recognition of the Palestinians, especially from Hamas? [Because] they know that all of the above cannot turn them into a normal state if the Palestinians deny them that. We cannot accept anything less than to have our rights respected. What's the need to have good relations with Israel? The Saudis lived 60 years without it. Egypt has relations with Israel for 30 years. What was the benefit?
Manuela Paraipan: Imagine that Arabs are convinced they have to choose between Israel or Iran.
Ousama Hamdan: This can't be a serious thought ... to say that I want to face Iran and I ally with Israel?
If the Iranians have ambitious projects in the region, why should not the Arabs try to match them? Arabs have power, land, wealth, water and people. What's to stop them? And they have an advantage [over Iran]: good standing with the West.
If you want to be a regional power, the wrong door is the Israeli one. Some tried it and it did not work because of the Israeli mentality that looks down on them instead of treating them as allies and partners.
Manuela Paraipan: Another possible scenario would be for Iran and Israel to put differences aside and look for common interests. The Arabs might end up outside the main two centers of power, with Iran the preeminent player in the Gulf and Israel in the Levant.
Ousama Hamdan: Why would either Iran or Israel change positions?
Israel is not able to control the Palestinians. Would they be able to widen their capability of influencing others? I am not sure it's doable. Many carry another citizenship; they have come here from different countries. They are not ready to sacrifice for the future-maybe the old generation, but not this one. If the Iranians presumably have such a role and are interested to share power, why not with Turkey? Turkey is more important to them. It has the gas, the relationship with Iraq, the Syrian ties, the support for the Palestinian cause, and it's a door to Europe.
Whoever acquires a higher status could directly link itself to the US. As a matter of fact, I think that the Israelis are under a significant threat-they can be[come] useless to the US [as a result of] the rising of Iran and Turkey.
That's why they are shouting night and day to bomb Iran. A war between Iran and the US will not remove Iran from the region and will not destroy it forever. However, it may give a pause of a few decades [for] the Israelis to do what they want. Hopefully, the American administration will handle this file wisely. The Iranians, the Turks and maybe some Arabs will rise up and become the third important power in the region. These players have more in common than anyone expects and certainly more than can be seen from the surface. In this equation Israel may keep on losing.
The issue here is that the Arabs should be able to raise the stakes and reach a more powerful status.
The Egyptian Reconciliation Paper
Manuela Paraipan: Is the Egyptian mediation and the paper they presented still suitable? Where is it all going?
Ousama Hamdan: The political system in Palestine was not created for a real democracy.
When Fatah created the PA, it was just for Fatah. They agreed to have elections, because after the death of Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) they felt that Abu Mazen and the PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) had no legitimacy without elections.
By participating Hamas would further legitimize the process. Everyone saw Hamas as major opposition group but did not consider the possibility that we could win the elections. Afterwards they realized that the system does not work, so we went through one year of instability and then we went to Mecca. Fatah understood, and maybe regional powers also understood, that there is no solution except reconciling Fatah and Hamas.
In Mecca we consented on general principles. Nonetheless, problems started again. For example, part of the agreement was to have the prime minister from Hamas, the deputy from Fatah and seven ministers nominated by Hamas and five by Fatah. And Hamas or the prime minister will assign the minister of interior (in charge of the security forces) who was not supposed to be from either Hamas or Fatah. There were several candidates we recommended and Abu Mazen kept refusing. Seeing [that] there [would be] no end to it, we asked Abu Mazen to suggest several names, and we [would] choose one of them. They accepted and put forward three names. We were in favor of one individual known for being a professional. He was one of the assistants of the last minister. The Palestinian forces refused to accept orders from him. They took orders from someone in Fatah.
It was clear that Fatah decided to go against the Palestinian national unity government, and they went to elections to undermine security. It wasn't any longer about sharing power; we decided that by signing the Mecca agreement. It did not work out because Fatah saw it as an intermediary step, so we arrived at a point of division.
It may have been the Americans that encouraged them on that track, and they saw it as an opportunity to start the peace process without Hamas. Annapolis came and nothing happened. After Mecca (2007) and Gaza (2008), they were in a critical situation. They were criticized by the Palestinians. So, they accepted the invitation to dialogue. And from there started a long period of on and off talks. We realized that addressing the political issues would take a long time, so the Egyptians advised us to move to the Palestinian national unity government and talk about political reforms after elections take place, and the elected leadership would then suggest a new political framework.
Whatever Fatah wanted to talk about we were ready [to talk about]. We have gone through issues such as national unity, elections, security, relations between the two parties, reforms etc. There were committees from all parties to discuss the ideas. And here appeared a problem: The Egyptian's Omar Suleyman called on the Palestinians to work out their issues, and then the Egyptians consulted the Americans and the Americans said no. After 14 days of brainstorming, papers written and countless discussions about principles-and some were accepted by all-when the Americans said no, there was no chance to move forward.
We were asked to leave and informed that we would be invited back. That happened back in March 2009. The Egyptians invited us [for] a second time in May and a third time in June. And then it stopped till August. The result was that Omar Suleyman said they will prepare a paper and send it to both Fatah and Hamas.
We received the paper and studied it; then Cairo followed. They rejected some of our points and accepted others. Khaled Meshal, in a press conference in Cairo, said that reconciliation is close. As Palestinians we faced at that time another issue: the Goldstone Report and the Human Rights Council, and harsh arguments were traded inside the Palestinian political arena.
We received a paper that had significant changes. To give you an example, in the first [original] paper at the paragraph about the security forces, the sentence clearly stated that we're looking to reform all the forces in Gaza and West Bank. In the second paper, it mentioned only Gaza. It wasn't acceptable. Each side blamed the other; there were external pressures that reflected upon this get-together process.
They tried to cast the blame on Hamas but could not. Last August Khaled Meshal met Omar Suleyman in Mecca. On 23 September there was the meeting in Damascus. There was no settlement on [the] security arena.
The Egyptian paper, and then the additional Palestinian Understanding paper, will be the foundation for the reconciliation. This is where we are today.
Manuela Paraipan: Did you decide to have elections?
Ousama Hamdan: We discussed that. We did not decide on the timing, but according to the Understanding it will take place in 6 to 12 months.
Manuela Paraipan: Would the reconciliation lead to your involvement in the peace process?
Ousama Hamdan: I believe this is separate. Let's have the reconciliation first and then we'll talk about the issue of our involvement.
Manuela Paraipan: Can it (the peace process) drag on?
Ousama Hamdan: I cannot say. This will be a serious question after the reconciliation.
Manuela Paraipan: Would the negotiations segment be part of the reconciliation?
Ousama Hamdan: No. Why?
Manuela Paraipan: Because you have to know what your steps will be as the government in Gaza.
Ousama Hamdan: That will be decided afterwards, and we agreed that a Palestinian leadership will be formed in a specific way.
Manuela Paraipan: What do you mean by a specific way?
Ousama Hamdan: The newly elected leadership decides the next moves.
Manuela Paraipan: You mean elections for both sides?
Ousama Hamdan: Of course.
Manuela Paraipan: But that implies that Fatah is now willing to share power with Hamas?
Ousama Hamdan: They have to accept that.
Manuela Paraipan: How do you see American policy towards Hamas and towards the Palestinian political arena in general?
Ousama Hamdan: The Americans are not spending enough effort to understand the region. And they do not understand Hamas as they should. It is in their interest to get facts right and act accordingly, and [it is] also in the interest of the people of the region.
In the US they can elect whoever they want to, but in the region they put restrictions [in place] every time.
I will go back to the Palestinian elections; [they were] transparent, fair so to promote democracy and political openness, and then Hamas got elected. What happened next? They said they don't want to deal with Hamas, thus they did not respect the Palestinian choice. It looks to me that all they wanted was to legitimize Abbas and his team, not to have a real Palestinian democracy.
Manuela Paraipan: Maybe it was due to the image you had and, some would say, still have.
Ousama Hamdan: If what you say is true, then why did everyone, not only our people but international and regional players, US included, encourage us to go through elections? Abu Mazen told us that the Americans supported our participation. He was not lying as we received similar messages from various sides inside and outside the region. They did not have to lie to convince us as we decided long before to go through elections. If they were indeed worried about Hamas, why not discuss these issues before? Or say that they will watch Hamas and see how we act. That we could have understood, but not the reaction we got. They thought they could weaken Hamas in few weeks. Disappointingly for them, and luckily for us, that plan did not succeed.
The war in Gaza
Ousama Hamdan: In the war against Gaza, Hamas did the best to defend the people. The old generation who watched the war in '56 and in '67 remembered that Gaza was occupied in less than one day while there was an army, not merely the resistance. For 22 days the Israelis could not invade Gaza due to the resistance.
Fatah has most of the regional support. They have the US and Israel on their side and that is a heavy burden on their shoulders. The logic behind is that the people know that the US is the major heavyweight that upholds the occupier's policies. When Abu Mazen said that the Israelis support him during the security arrangements, that made his position more difficult.
Manuela Paraipan: For how long can you keep going?
Ousama Hamdan: I don't know. Everyone expected Hamas to fall down in few weeks and we are still doing our work after five years. The present situation in Gaza is better than it was in 2006. People felt they were not defeated by all the pressures put on them, and mind you there weren't few, and I am talking here about everyone, whether they are with Hamas or not.
Manuela Paraipan: Aren't you too idealistic when talking about the people in Gaza? They are the ones suffering. Neither you, nor Khaled Meshal, live there.
Ousama Hamdan: Ismail Hanyyeh is a major leader in Hamas, and he is in Gaza. The ministers and the majority of our leaders are living in the same circumstances as the rest of the people.
Everyone suffers and [it] is not because of Hamas. We did not put sanctions on Gaza.
The people are watching Hamas, and if they suffer, Hamas suffers, and if they are having a good time, then Hamas is having it too. There is no separation in Gaza or West Bank between leadership and the people.
Perspective on West Bank
Manuela Paraipan: Do you have an official representation of the group in West Bank? How do you deal with Fatah?
Ousama Hamdan: There is no official representation of the group except for PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) members. They enjoy a sort of immunity. They were arrested by the Israelis, but till now they were not arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces. They tried to arrest some and that turned the people against them so they stopped. It is not only Hamas they are after but anyone who disagrees with PA.
When Abu Mazen decided to go to direct negotiations in Washington DC, some senior Palestinian activists like Munir al Masri, Barghouti and others decided to have a sitting in a closed hall to say that they are against the negotiations. They had the permission from the mayor of Ramallah. When they went in at 11 am, they discovered that around 300 members of the security forces were already there. The protestors had no seats left. The security forces employees were in civilian clothes and when someone started to speak, they started waving flags and shouting, "long life for Abu Mazen," so they actually disregarded and countered a peaceful event.
When the protestors tried to go outside there were harsh verbal exchanges with the security members. I don't know if Abu Mazen condones such a behavior, but I know that a security senior official, General Majed Faraj, from the intelligence did all this.
The United States' biggest mistake is that they did not accept the conclusion of the elections. Perhaps it would have been different should they [have] at least talked to Hamas. Instead they choose to dialogue with Abu Mazen although he cannot deliver.
Manuela Paraipan: Is the Arab support for President Abbas the leverage he needs in order to remain the main Palestinian interlocutor for Israel and the US?
Ousama Hamdan: Most of the Arab states support him because the Americans support him. They don't want to have problems with the Americans. If the United States says tomorrow that it is not backing Abu Mazen anymore and they need him to be first and foremost upheld by his own people, I guarantee that a large percentage of the regional support disappears.
Manuela Paraipan: Can Hamas be trusted?
Ousama Hamdan: It is not about Hamas here. We are an elected party and we have responsibilities towards our constituency, and they [Israel] deal with political parties and so do we.
We need to know, and the Israelis have to have a clear definition of, the Palestinian rights. [They need] to recognize them and to show some commitment towards them. Thus far the Israelis and the Americans did not accept the Palestinians as a nation. Mainly the Israelis refer to us as a people who are living on the lands. [The] PLO recognized Israel, but they [Israel] did not reciprocate.
Manuela Paraipan: Have you recognized Israel officially?
Ousama Hamdan: No.
Manuela Paraipan: Would you?
Ousama Hamdan: When we have an independent, sovereign state, our government will answer this question-not the resistance, not the political parties. This has to be done by the government, not by people who are under occupation.
Manuela Paraipan: How about going to UN to recognize the Palestinian state? Is it a worthwhile strategy?
Ousama Hamdan: There are already hundreds of UN resolutions. They have to implement them.
Arafat had a famous speech back in 1974 when he said in front of the General Assembly that he came there with the gun in one hand and the olive branch in the other. Don't let the olive branch fall from my hand, he said. It was an important political message, but it was not well received.
Going to UN may be a good idea, but to this day our experience with UN resolutions is not particularly impressive. So we need to see some evidence that it may be worthy.
Manuela Paraipan: Are you going to have a peace conference in Egypt anytime soon?
Ousama Hamdan: The Egyptians talk about it, but we are not supposed to be part of, according to the US.
Manuela Paraipan: What is Hamas's perspective on false flag operations? Are you using this particular strategy?
Ousama Hamdan: In our situation it would not work because our resistance is against the occupation. It works when you are doing it against your own government.
In Hamas, no one denies that we are a resistance movement and everyone knows the principles for resistance. The decisions about the militant actions are taken by the militant body. They decide when, where and how to do it. However, there are general policies that everyone abides by.
In the normal, if I can call it that, situation (under occupation) there is resistance through any means, not only military, and this is all the time.
There are extraordinary states of affairs, like a ceasefire. Then the decision is taken by the political leadership and that reflects on the militant body. They don't discuss it, don't negotiate that, they accept that there is a ceasefire. But at the end of the ceasefire, they go back to the normal situation.
They have their leadership, they follow up their targets-and they establish their string of actions against the occupation. Even when they are attacked by the Israelis, they react according to specific policies.
Manuela Paraipan: Often you speak of ‚resistance‘. What exactly do you mean by that?
Ousama Hamdan: It is resistance in its fullest sense. Individuals, groups and communities resist in different ways. Political resistance, civil resistance, militant [resistance]-all and more can work together. Occupation is not accepted, and I am not talking here only about the military one but about principles and ideas.
If you accept occupation the nation will die although the individuals may live.
Targeting civilians is not a Hamas policy
Manuela Paraipan: What is Hamas policy, if any, regarding civilians? Are they a target for the militants?
Ousama Hamdan: In 2005, I challenged the Israelis to bring out the list with the people that were killed in Hamas operations and to identify the militants and the civilians. I said at the time that you will discover that more than 70 percent of them are militants.
In fact, Hamas did not work to target civilians. It is so simple if you want to do that. However, Hamas does not target schools, cinemas, hospitals, which the Israelis have done all the time.
The main question was about the settlers: are they civilians or not? According to the Geneva Accord they are not. Even according to the Israelis they are not.
In 2003 we went to Cairo. The Egyptians asked whether Hamas is ready to stop the martyrdom operations or not. We gave the Egyptians a better offer. We were ready to have an agreement to stop targeting civilians [on] both sides. The army is supposed to fight, but civilians should be out of it. The Egyptians agreed and passed it on to the Israelis.
Ariel Sharon sent Efraim Halevi, who was the head of Shin Bet at the time. The Egyptians, who were the mediators, negotiated with Halevi. When we reached the definition of civilians, we accepted the definition put forward by the Geneva Accord. The Israelis were surprised as they did not expect that. We said that the settlers are not civilians and the answer was, yes, they are not.
Halevi went back to Israel, but Sharon rejected the proposal. He said that he is not giving us the chance to kill his soldiers while his hands are tied behind the back because he retaliated against civilians.During the war in Gaza (2008 - 2009), in two specific events our militants captured Israeli militants and they were killed in both occasions by the Israelis.
In one of those occasions, they negotiated for 30 hours with the Israelis. In the end the Israelis bombed the house and killed them all. An Israeli soldier told an Israeli newspaper that there were direct orders that should they be captured they will die with the Palestinians. They knew that on the field they may be killed by friends alongside those that captured them. That was the Israeli mentality then and now.
West Bank - Hebron attacks
Manuela Paraipan: How do you explain the attacks that took place end of August and early September?
Ousama Hamdan: Before the attacks in Hebron no one could claim that Hamas targeted civilians. It was more of a message sent than a policy change.
There is no ceasefire in West Bank. The Israelis insisted to have the ceasefire only in Gaza, not West Bank. Firstly, no ceasefire; second, they were harassing and arresting our people.
It is a joint venture, Israeli - PA (Palestinian Authority), in arresting and investigating Hamas affiliated individuals or those they think they are affiliated with us, but the assassinations are done by the hands of the Israelis-maybe with the help of the Palestinians.
For example, the assassination of Iiyad Shilbaya: He was a Hamas member jailed in Palestinian prisons for more than two years. In less than 48 hours from his release he was assassinated in his house.
The attacks were not related to the peace process. There is no need to sabotage a failed process. Let it go down by itself.
The PA security forces attack Hamas in West Bank not because Hamas attempts to attack them. They do it on behalf of the Israelis and because they want to protect themselves from the Israelis.
When you arrest, torture and kill Hamas members it is easy to say whatever lies about Hamas.
Manuela Paraipan: Is Hamas likely to have such actions in the future?
Ousama Hamdan: I told you initially what is the normal situation-that of a resistance-so according to that I have to expect operations not only from Hamas but from all Palestinians factions. In fact, I expect operations from some members in Fatah. Maybe it will not happen tomorrow but in the future.
In the second Intifada around 20 percent of the operations, if not more, were done by individuals not connected to parties.
Islamic Groups in Gaza Strip
Manuela Paraipan: How do you deal with the Islamic groups and factions, perhaps Al Qaeda affiliated, active in Gaza?
Ousama Hamdan: We differentiate between two issues: the resistance against the occupation, which, I believe, is the right of all Palestinians [to undertake] in their own manner and stepping away from existing laws which has been done by some minor groups, like the group of Abdul Latif Musa. When they put bombs in a wedding festival because they were against what the people were doing, that simply is a trespassing of the law and is not permitted.There was an investigation, some were arrested, they went to courts and we implemented the law.
We also discussed with them [and] their leaders, [and] we made pressure through their families and the social network, explaining that they were harming their community.
We used all the available tools to change their ways and do it in a peaceful manner. Law enforcement was part of that. Some did not accept what we had to say.
Another small group was connected directly to one of the generals in the Palestinian security forces in West Bank, and he was the go-between the group in Gaza and some Salafi Sheikhs in Jordan bringing fatwas that supported radical messages and actions.
The Interior Ministry in Gaza had the letters (the fatwas), tapped the phone calls between them and those Sheikhs, and were in the possession of the raw video tapes they recorded for the operations. All the material was sent to the court of justice. When they resisted the arrest, the police stepped in. This happened in 2009, after the war.
The group was arrested while they were planning to assassinate Ismail Hanyyeh. They were connected to a general in Ramallah who used to work for Tawfik Tirawi and now responds to Majed al Faraj. He brought the fatwas; he was the leader. If you were to listen to them, you may think they are like Al Qaeda, but when you follow up the chain of command, you reach the Palestinian intelligence in Ramallah.
Manuela Paraipan: Is there any truth to the rumour that Muhammad Dayf was leading or connected to such factions?
Ousama Hamdan: Dayf is the leader of the Qassam Brigades. It is a rumour [his connections to other factions] spread by the security forces in Ramallah, and it was taken [on board] by Americans and some of the Europeans in order to convince themselves that they are right to do the things they do against Hamas.
An example that points out the irony of such [a] bogus claim is that [when] Abu Mazen himself said a while ago that Gaza is the Emirate of Darkness and that Hamas works on behalf of Al Qaeda, ... Al Qaeda attacked Hamas and attacked Abu Mazen. They wanted to clarify that there is no association with Hamas-to clear their reputation presumably.
Manuela Paraipan: Is there a centralized command of the radical factions? Are they a problem or merely a nuisance?
Ousama Hamdan: There is no centralized command. Some are doing it alone, others have connections outside Gaza. These days we speak of elements rather than factions. In any community you may find such elements but they are talking, not acting.
Our best tool is to enforce law on the ground and to make them understand that their actions go against the well being of the society they too are part of. It is [a] pre-emptive and protective step.
Manuela Paraipan: Hamas started as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you still bound ideologically to the Brotherhood?
Ousama Hamdan: It is true that we came from the Brotherhood organization, but it is different now. We are a Palestinian national movement representing our national cause. There are no structural links to the Brotherhood, just ties like with any other movement or political party.
The Brotherhood network is bigger than Hamas's, no doubt. We work among 10 million Palestinians, and they work among 1.3 billion Muslims.
Cast Lead Operation
Manuela Paraipan: Was there an impact of the Cast Lead operation on the group's military strategy or tactics?
Ousama Hamdan: I have to say something that is common knowledge. When you face such a big operation-close to being a full-fledged war against Hamas-you have to evaluate what happened. According to the conclusions reached you may remove, add or change some things. I believe this action had been taken.
But, I don't have the specifics. It is the work of the militant wing and it stays with them.
In Hamas, and this is one of the most important features, we don't ignore our experiences. We don't say, it happened and let it go. We look for the lessons to be learned. If there are positive results for Hamas, we have to know why, so we look at the process and see how we reached that particular point. We have to improve ourselves and we have to protect ourselves.
Relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Manuela Paraipan: How do you describe the relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
Ousama Hamdan: It is based on the same principles as the relationship with other Palestinian organizations, parties and groups.
With Islamic al Jihad we have a similar ideology-similar, but not identical. They are more militant in style and approach, but I think they are changing. They are creating a political and social body.
Islamic Jihad focuses on the militant work more than anything else. That's fine. When you have the struggle we have, you need the efforts of everyone-of people who may be able to negotiate. All this is supposed to be part of one plan: the liberation of Palestinian lands.
We resist the occupation. When working in the field there can be issues, field related issues. Accidents ... not being synchronized, mainly among the youths but we solve these problems. There isn't a daily contact, but there is an open channel in Gaza.
In Lebanon we don't have problems, unlike Gaza. We have a leadership for the eight factions allied with Hamas in Lebanon. We have meetings; we arrange a common agenda in order to be more effective.
Manuela Paraipan: Is Islamic Jihad closer to Iran than Hamas is?
Ousama Hamdan: Everyone is saying that. If they are saying that, I cannot say anything else.
They started their relationship with the Iranians before Hamas did. That was in 1988, four years before us. I cannot speak about their ties with the Iranians because I don't know how far they go [or] how deep [they are].
I hope this type of tie can be developed with some Arab countries as well. This is true for both Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Manuela Paraipan: Could Hamas be a mediator between Arab states and Iran?Did anyone suggest it, or did you offer?
Ousama Hamdan: We did not propose it and we are not willing to. Some Arabs who accused Hamas for its relations with Iran have a better relationship themselves with Tehran.
Manuela Paraipan: What about Hamas's relationship with Syria?
Ousama Hamdan: Our interest is to have a good standing with all regional players and to have ties with players in the international community. It is part of our work as political party.
We are people under the occupation and we have to gain the support of everyone. We work hard to have ties with the Arab countries but it depends on them. Some countries accept it and open the door widely, others prefer an undercover relationship; they don't want to talk about it and asked us not to talk about that. We respect their wish. Some opened the door a little bit so everyone can see there is a relation, but no one knows for sure how this is going to work; you know something is happening but you don't dare to say you've seen it with your own eyes.
With the Syrians we have good relations. They support the Palestinians, our cause, including Hamas.
The leadership is not only in Damascus and the Syrians are not interfering in our business. You can say that since I am part of Hamas what else could you expect from me? All that I can say to those who are suspicious of Syrian meddling is, try us. Invite us in your country and you will find the answer yourself.
While talking to one of the regional leaders, he said that we are under the influence of both Iran and Damascus. I told him that we were in Jordan and they asked us to leave, so, can I consider his interest an invitation to move our offices from Damascus to his capital? His immediate reply was that it is all right to stay in Damascus.
Manuela Paraipan: Maybe they did not want the headache? Sorry to be so blunt.
Ousama Hamdan: I think he knew better than anyone else that ties with Hamas are a leverage. Why would they have it otherwise?
The Syrians have, and know, their limits, but they can go further than others.
And if we're at it, if someone wants to criticize Hamas, what about Abu Mazen? Is he under the influence of the Americans and Israelis? Are you convincing him to pursue intra-Palestinian reconciliation? Damascus encouraged us and Fatah to reconcile, but they do not interfere in any other way.